The Professional Learning Community (PLC) has gained traction in recent years, even though its initial introduction to the education circuit began in earnest in the early 1990s when researchers documented the efficacy of the PLC to bring sustained school improvement and student achievement gains, to say nothing of the increase in teacher morale, improved professional development, and promotion of best practices. These benefits can be directly linked to teachers collaborating to study student formative and summative assessment data, write lesson plans, discuss the best teaching strategies and interventions, reflect, and support one another in a shared goal and purpose.
At my school, our campus administration implemented PLCs for every subject area four years ago when the state changed (once again) our student assessments. Since then, we’ve seen tremendous and steady growth in student success both in the classroom and on our STAAR exams. While there is not much with which I agree regarding the construction or implementation of state-mandated exams or with the increasing paperwork demands placed upon our PLCs to document and overproduce, motivated largely by a CYA mentality regarding testing standards, all of that is neither here nor there. Suffice to say that within our English department, our PLCs work well together, enjoy a collegiality and rapport among members, and experience continuous improvement. We meet three times a week during our department-wide planning periods to create student assessments, cull and reflect upon data, score essays, plan lessons and formative assessment strategies, and determine instructional interventions based upon student data. The other two days of the week are spent in RtIs, wherein teachers of each PLC provide interventions for targeted students in each other’s classes. All in all, this works out well, but… as much time as we are given to collaborate and reflect, many of us feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and in need of something else.
I’ve had occasion recently to think a lot about this, and I’ve discovered two as-yet-unstudied phenomena surrounding teacher planning, both of which seem to be far more valuable in providing direct, actionable information than our formal PLCs: the Bathroom PLC and the Hallway PLC.
In our upstairs section of the building, we have one unisex bathroom for 24 teachers, four aids, and two custodial staff. Eight men and 22 women. And we have six minutes between bells to use the restroom. As you might imagine, the line for our shared toilet becomes quite long–so long, in fact, that some courageous souls choose to brave the perils of the student restrooms to attend to their needs, something that any teacher knows is an adventure akin to the Deadliest Catch meets Man vs. Wild survival series. Not me. I’m not that foolhardy.
Aside from the inevitable Olympic sprints and occasional evil machinations to foil our colleagues’ attempts to get to the bathroom first, the professional development that occurs while we wait in this line is worthy of exploring. After the initial half-question “Line?” is answered and the teacher decides his/her ability to hold it another class period has reached its biological limit, an interesting thing happens: someone invariably begins talking about a lesson or a student or an entertaining event s/he has experienced recently. Sometimes teachers ask each other their opinions about how to teach a lesson, sometimes teachers vent about that kid in third period who Just. Drives. You. Crazy, and sometimes teachers simply provide moral support for each other as we wait our turn. On more than one occasion, a teacher using the toilet has been known to continue a discussion with other teachers through the locked bathroom door, yelling from inside to be heard. Funnier still, no one seems to think this is odd (well, until just now as I am writing it…). In this queue, we are able to accomplish vertical alignment of our course curricula since 9-12 grade teachers all convene in this miracle space. We are also able to do interdisciplinary planning since there are a few math stragglers upstairs with us English folks (yes, there are some amazing ways for math and English teachers to collaborate but I’ll leave that for another post). Other times, we discuss our Pavlovian responses to the bell and compare the number of weeks into summer it takes for us to un-condition ourselves to using the bathroom only when we hear a bell. Usually, however, it becomes a time for us to reconnect with others in our department who may not teach on the same hall or in the same grade level. And well… you know—do our business.
In addition to the Bathroom PLC, the less urgent and more entertaining Hallway PLC is another marvel of modern education. While it’s true we are required to stand in the halls between classes to monitor students, many of us come to enjoy this time spent with each other. Our hallway between bells is the site of medical attention (ibuprofen for those headaches we can’t shake, decongestant for the cold we don’t have time to stay home to heal, Band-Aids for the too often lacerations caused by paper, scissors, manila folders, and the occasional escape attempt from the classroom window during term paper season…), as well as many practical jokes and kidding among faculty members that relieve tension and annoyances previous classes may have triggered, thereby affording us our sanity and our next period’s students a revitalized instructor.
Yet, the Hallway PLC also is the place where teachers can receive quick instructional tips or offer modifications to common grade level lesson plans, advice from other teachers about classroom management, and brief conferences about student work. Here, too, we are able to confer with teachers of other grades, discuss ways to scaffold instruction, talk about best practices, share what works well with particular students, and ensure we are promoting rigor and next-level readiness for our students.
Not much study, if any, has been done on the value of the Bathroom and Hallway PLCs, although I would wager that both of these impromptu communities serve teachers and students just as well as formal PLCs—perhaps more—because of the immediacy of the feedback we receive. Or maybe it’s just because of the urgency of the need we experience. No matter the reason, there’s something special that happens in the bathroom and in the hallways that has nothing to do with testing data or paperwork but everything to do with establishing an actual community that makes the formal PLC possible.